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. . . Yes, But Are We Really Color Deaf?

February 17, 1985|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

The story may be apocryphal, but I doubt it.

A great diva, basking in the twilight of a long career, was singing Tosca one night at the Met in 1961. Before the performance, her dresser asked if she had yet heard Leontyne Price, who had just made a sensational debut as Leonora in "Il Trovatore."

The great diva, herself a celebrated if fading exponent of the same role, quivered a few chins in lofty disapproval. "Ah, yes," she purred. "Price. A lovely voice. But the poor thing is singing the wrong repertory!"

The dresser registered surprise. "What repertory should Price be singing?" he asked.

The great diva smiled a knowing smile. "Bess," she purred. "Just Bess."

Leontyne Price had, of course, enjoyed an international success as George Gershwin's irresistible Catfish Row floozy. She also had attracted attention in another specialized, segregated, all-black opera, Virgil Thomson's "Four Saints in Three Acts." She had sung another black role, that of the Ethiopian Aida, in some of the best opera houses in Europe and America. But it was no accident that she had chosen "Trovatore" for her all-important calling card at the Met.

Leonora, she felt, suited her voice and her temperament. The fact that the character in question had a complexion lighter than her own seemed irrelevant. Makeup was supposed to take care of such discrepancies.

No one had complained, lo those many decades, when a white soprano portrayed Aida, when a white tenor played the moor Otello, or when a white soprano impersonated the Japanese Madama Butterfly. Why should anyone care if the soprano singing Leonora--or Donna Anna or Ariadne or Amelia or Tatania--happened to be black?

In those less enlightened times, everyone seemed to care. It was a matter of public shame. Rudolf Bing encountered violent resistance from his board when in 1955 he broke the color barrier at the Met by engaging Marian Anderson for Ulrica in "Un Ballo in Maschera," an "old-Gypsy" role that easily accommodates dark skin.

Many great black singers before Anderson--Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, Jules Bledsoe, Todd Duncan, Ellabelle Davis, Dorothy Maynor, Anne Brown and Muriel Rahn, to name a few--deserved a place of honor at the Met. They had to content themselves, however, with concert work, with European engagements and with very sporadic appearances on far less prestigious stages.

We like to think, in the smug 1980s, that racial discrimination in opera is ancient history, that operatic audiences everywhere are color blind and color deaf, too. Once again invoking the immortal words of Vito Sportivo, we must conclude that it ain't necessarily so.

When Leontyne Price sang her nationally televised farewell to opera last month, it was no accident that she chose the role of Aida. The point, she seemed to say, had been made. As long as she could enter the Met doors as a white character, there was no reason why she should not walk out, head high, as a black one.

Aida always had brought out the best in Price. No one since Zinka Milanov could float the ascending pianissimo tones of the Nile Scene as she did, even at the age of 57. That valedictory Aida represented a final personal triumph for the soprano, who imbued the performance with unexpected passion and overwhelming pride.

"Aida," she explained at the time, "is not a slave at all. She is a captive princess. She is of noble blood."

There were no speeches at the Price farewell, no presentations, no official proclamations. "I'm trying to exhibit good taste," said the diva who, not incidentally, will continue to sing in recitals and concerts. "I prefer to leave standing up, like a well-mannered guest at a party."

B. H. Haggin is, in most instances, an illuminating and engaging music critic for what outlets. His is a tough, crotchety, iconoclastic voice in a generally feeble and discordant American chorus. Unfortunately, he has his foibles.

A most painful one comes to light, again, in "Music and Ballet" (Horizon: $18.95) a compilation of essays written between 1973 and 1983. Recounting a 1974 "Don Giovanni" at the Met, Haggin writes of Price's "superb singing as Donna Anna up to the concluding florid last (sic) passages of 'Non mi dir,' which she managed in a sort of vocal short-hand that implied the notes she didn't sing."

So far so good. But Haggin goes on. "Price presented with her Donna Anna the same obtrusive incongruity as previously with her Leonora in 'Il Trovatore' and her Pamina in 'The Magic Flute' but not with her Aida: When I look at what is happening on a stage, my imagination still cannot accommodate itself to a black in the role of a white."

Haggin's operatic imagination, incidentally, seems to encounter no comparable problem with a fat person in the role of a skinny person or with an old person in the role of a young one.

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